It may have been a hoax, but an announcement Monday that the federal government was reversing course and reopening public housing projects it had slated for demolition exposed a fault line in this city’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Onstage at an investors’ conference with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an impostor claiming to be an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave a 15-minute speech announcing the supposed policy shift.
“Our charter here at HUD is to ensure access to affordable housing for those who need it the most,” said the man, who called himself as Rene Oswin. “This past year in New Orleans, I am ashamed to say that we have clearly failed to do this.”
HUD immediately said there was in fact no policy change.
“Despite false statements made today, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is moving forward with its plan to redevelop New Orleans’ public housing so that families will have the opportunity to return to better, safer neighborhoods,” said spokeswoman Donna White. “It is terribly sad that someone would perpetuate such a cruel hoax and play on the fears and anxieties of families who are desperate to return to their homes.”
In the year since Katrina hit, there has been an angry dispute between the federal government -- which, along with many public housing residents, views the facilities as crime-infested eyesores -- and advocates of low-income housing, who argue that New Orleans is far too short on housing to demolish anything.
“The natural disaster of Katrina uncovered and exacerbated existing man-made threats to fair and affordable housing, which have been created by specific policy decisions and years of neglect,” the NAACP said in a recent report.
The hurricane last summer displaced tens of thousands of low-income New Orleans residents, many from the city’s Lower 9th Ward. The NAACP, saying Katrina was disproportionately harsh on the poor, has called on the government to repair and reopen the units within six months.
Before Katrina, about 5,100 people lived in New Orleans’ public housing.
HUD plans to demolish four complexes -- St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte -- within three years and put mixed-income neighborhoods in their place.
In addition to hurricane damage, officials said, those facilities were plagued by drug dealers and gangs.
About 1,000 public housing units in the newest, least damaged complexes are to be reopened by the end of summer.
But some residents have sued to keep their homes from being destroyed, saying the government’s real intent is to drive black families out of town.
“It’s clear what they want to do. The developers want the land,” said Sharon Sears Jasper, who raised six children and 14 grandchildren at St. Bernard Housing Development, the city’s largest such complex.
Jasper is living in Houston but regularly travels to New Orleans in hopes that she might be allowed into her flooded first-floor apartment to clean it.
A “survivors village” has sprouted outside St. Bernard, located in the 7th Ward. On Monday, former resident Stephanie Mingo, 44, held court under a tent on the median strip in front of the complex, as she has for several weeks.
“This is history. This is where I had my babies at,” said Mingo, a mother of four, as she pointed toward the complex. “This is where I’ve seen people come up.
“I’m coming back. I don’t care what they say, I’m coming back.”
Analysts say affordable housing is the foundation for the city’s recovery.
“In the short term, when you have thousands of people in trailers
The faux official who announced the new HUD plan to revamp the damaged buildings was actually Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the Yes Men -- a group of performance artists and activists who have made a career of mocking those they abhor.
One of the Yes Men, for example, posed as a Dow Chemical spokesman during a 2004 BBC interview and took responsibility for the 1984 cyanide gas leak in Bhopal, India. He promised billions of dollars in compensation.
Calling their pranks “identity correction,” the activists have impersonated World Trade Organization officials and crashed the Republican National Convention in New York, posing as fans of the Bush administration’s environmental policies.
Bichlbaum’s partner, Mike Bonanno -- who posed as his press secretary, “Larry,” in front of the Laffite public housing facility here Monday -- said they were outraged that HUD was shuttering public housing units at the very time so many residents are homeless.
“It’s so absurd, you can’t even fathom it unless you’ve been down here,” Bonanno said. “They have locked people out of their houses. That’s the reason people are saying the government is doing ethnic cleansing.”
Equity International -- a firm that brings government, business and the nonprofit sector together to speed rebuilding efforts after disasters -- organized the Gulf Coast Reconstruction and Hurricane Preparedness Summit, at which HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson supposedly had planned to speak.
William Loiry, president of Equity International, said Monday that he had been contacted about a week ago by a person claiming to work for the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.
“They claimed they were representing Secretary Jackson, and that he wanted to use our venue to make this major announcement,” Loiry said. “We even reviewed their press release that was embargoed” until Monday.
The phony public relations officials said the Discovery Channel would be covering Jackson’s address and other activities. And on Monday, a delegation of half a dozen people arrived at the conference at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, La. They said they were representatives of Hill & Knowlton and members of a Discovery Channel news team.
“I even had an interview with them,” Loiry said.
But a few minutes before the conference was to begin, Loiry said, he was informed that the HUD secretary was meeting with President Bush and that “Rene Oswin” would be speaking in his place.
They chose that alias because, Bonanno said, “Rene” means rebirth in French and “Oswin” is the Catholic patron saint of victims of betrayal.
Loiry said that after the policy change announcement, a reporter became suspicious and called HUD, where officials confirmed Oswin was a fraud. By the time Loiry tried to track down the phony entourage, it had disappeared.
“Since the statement was a fraud, perpetuated on people who are in need at a time when they are having a hard time with emotions about Katrina,” Loiry said, “I think this is cruel and disgusting.”
Simmons reported from New Orleans and Neuman from Washington.